Policing, ‘Science’ and the Curious Case of Photo-FIT

Lawrence, Paul (2019). Policing, ‘Science’ and the Curious Case of Photo-FIT. The Historical Journal (In Press).

Abstract

This article analyses the curious development and subsequent refinement of the Photo-FIT system for the identification of criminal suspects, used by police forces around the world from the 1970s. Situating Photo-FIT in a succession of other technologies of identification, it demonstrates that, far from representing the onward march of science and technology (and the way in which both were harnessed to the power of the state in the twentieth century), Photo-FIT was the brainchild of an idiosyncratic entrepreneur wedded to increasingly outmoded notions of physiognomy. Its adoption by the Home Office was primarily determined by the particular context of the later 1960s, and its continued use owed more to vested interest and energetic promotion than to scientific underpinnings or proven efficacy. It did, however, in the longer term, provide the impetus for the development of a new sub-field of psychology and pave the way for the development of increasingly sophisticated facial identification technologies still used today. Overall, the article demonstrates the long persistence of physiognomic thinking in twentieth-century Britain, the way in which new technology is socially-constructed and the persuasive power of ‘pseudo-science’.

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